Slow train coming:U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur can see a future with much better rail travel, but it’s a picture clouded by myriad issues.

You can’t miss the frustration in the voice of U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur as she talks about the state of rail travel in and around Sandusky as well as the country as a whole in 2024.

“Rail is the spine of this region, and it’s been neglected for far too long,” says Kaptur, who represents Ohio’s ninth congressional district, which includes Sandusky, home to one of six Amtrak stations in Ohio, “The Chicago-to-Cleveland corridor is horribly congested, and we cannot get what I call efficient freight nor modern passenger service because of this congestion.

“It starts on the West Coast, and it works its way through Chicago, which is a total snarl,” she continues. “And then trying to get here from Chicago on the current Norfolk Southern-CSX line? Good luck.”

During a recent phone interview, Kaptur, who is serving in her 21st term, discusses the challenges in improving the situation, safety concerns and her vision for the future of rail travel.

“Oh yes, I have one,” she says of a vision.

We are far from making it reality, however..

“Hundreds of trains a day crawl through our area,” she says. “We have problems all across the region with trains stopping and blocking intersections, blocking fire engines, blocking ambulances. 

“And I have to say,” she adds, “it’s nearly impossible to sit down with the heads of these companies.”

U.S. Rep. Marcy KapturShe speaks of lackluster involvement by the companies in an event with her at Toledo’s Amtrak station nearly a year ago – after multiple train derailments in the state, including the incident in Sandusky in October 2022 and the national headline-grabbing derailment in East Palestine in February 2023 – representatives of companies either having little to say or skipping it altogether. 

“So here we are advocating for our communities and our people, and you can’t even meet with those in charge?” Kaptur says. “It’s really a disgrace nationally. The most cooperation I’ve had from any railroad is Canadian National (Railway). They are very available. I didn’t know how much of the lines they owned in the United States, but it’s quite significant – namely north-south, not east-west.”

Kaptur has fought for federal dollars for rail improvements in the region, with those efforts helping in December to secure $500,000 for a study of the corridor running from Cleveland through Toledo to Detroit.

“Believe me, it took Republican and Democratic cooperation to get anything,” the Democratic congresswoman says. “This was not an easily won $500,000.”

She’s happy to have it but is frustrated it doesn’t extend the corridor to Chicago, which would include the Indiana areas of South Bend and Gary. 

As for the Cleveland-to-Detroit corridor, Kaptur is a proponent of moving passenger trains to a dedicated line, for starters.

“We’ve got to get Amtrak off the main line,” she says. “You could say to me, ‘Congresswoman, what would really help?’ No. 1: We need a separate passenger easement. There is an electric rail that runs between South Bend’s airport, where the (University of Notre Dame) football games are … and Randolph Street, Chicago. OK, that gets us halfway to Chicago from that point in South Bend. How do we get from South Bend to Cleveland?”

Unsurprisingly, she has a thought about that.

“Several people have said to me … don’t look so hard – look for an additional easement (along) the Ohio Turnpike,’” Kaptur says. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’

“Maybe we need to kind of break out of the 20th-century mode and look at a way of moving electric rail around the Great Lakes for passenger use … as opposed to constantly being frustrated by these freight lines.”

Of course, in light of the aforementioned derailments, any discussion about railroads must include where things stand in terms of safety.

“It’s terrible,” Kaptur says. “It’s terrible.”

She says she has come to believe part of the problem is the railroad companies often don’t own their own train cars, instead hauling those belonging to the companies doing the shipping. 

Plus, she says, the companies have grown quite large, which brings other issues.

“They really don’t know the regions they’re running through; they just run through them,” Kaptur says. “Their inspections have been severely reduced. So, for instance, if you are in maintenance and weighing, you’re responsible for the safety of a given car. You have one minute to investigate the car. You couldn’t possibly do it, and that’s why we have the problem in East Palestine.

“They really don’t have a system that assures worker safety or the safety of the traveling public now. Just look at the number of accidents that are occurring all over the country, including here in Ohio.”

Her issues don’t stop there, with Kaptur saying railroad companies won’t do much to help improve blighted overpasses and underpasses – “There’s a constant negligence,” she says – and they aren’t concerned enough about the environmental impacts of their businesses.

“It’s really unfair to the communities and people,” she says. “In Toledo, the largest city I represent, cars back up on one side of the city and spew diesel fumes all day. This is not right.”

Kaptur remains hopeful the aforementioned study will generate promising ideas. 

She also would like to see private companies pressure Amtrak to do what it can to improve its service, noting that to board a train at the Sandusky station, you’re probably looking at a departure in the early morning hours. 

Heck, she’s “even willing to consider tunnels under Lake Erie,” as she’d like to see travel to Canada to have a good rail option. 

The major need, then, is more federal dollars, such as the more than $10 million announced in October for upgrades to the Napoleon, Defiance, & Western Railway?

“It is absolutely more federal support – and getting the attention of the lawmakers to rail,” she says. “In Columbus, they’re still wed to a roadway model. Well, let me tell you when the (country’s population) hits 500 million – you can hardly make it through Chicago now. (Those lawmakers) will be gone, and their kids will have a very congested country. 

“We have to look at modern rail as an essential element of moving goods and people.. We are not into that psychology yet as a country.”